NAB: Current FCC Band Plan Needs Fixing

Comments Focus on Band, International Coordination, Repacking

The National Association of Broadcasters says there are parts of the FCC's proposed band plan that are unworkable from an engineering perspective, but it has an alternative as it works to ensure that broadcasters who don't sell out spectrum aren't, in turn, sold out by an unworkable auction framework hurriedly erected to meet an artificial timetable.

"There has been a high level of interest in the FCC's planned incentive auction," said an FCC spokesman. "We will review all comments closely, and anticipate that interested parties will provide specific data so we can evaluate any technical proposals."  An FCC source pointed out that it is still fairly early in the process and that the FCC remains open minded and open to working with industry on any technical issues.

NAB held true to its word on Friday, signaling in comments on the FCC's incentive auctions that its concern was for TV stations that remain in business. According to top NAB execs, its comments do not even address the auction portion (or channel-sharing by those who give up spectrum), but rather focus on the key issues of international coordination, station repacking and the band plan, or as the new wireless BFF, NAB, puts it, "the neighborhood" they will share with their "wireless friends."

Not commenting on the auction itself made sense, given that NAB president Gordon Smith still says he knows of no NAB member who is planning to sell, and says that the comments reflect the priorities of those members.

At a press conference outlining their comments on Friday, Smith and auction/band plan guru Rick Kaplan emphasized that they wanted the auction to work, but that, as Kaplan told B&C in an interview previewing the comments, it should not be rushed. "It's more important to get this done right than to get it done right now," said Smith.

Smith borrowed from Brown v. Board of Education, saying the auction should proceed with all deliberate speed, which means not until the FCC has finished some key spadework. That includes completing frequency coordination with Mexico and Canada, publicizing repacking methodology and clarifying the covered moving expenses so broadcasters can vet the plan for moving them into tighter quarters, and modifying its band plan so that broadcasters and wireless companies have their own, separate living quarters.

Kaplan has said that there should be no artificial timetable for completing the auction. The FCC has targeted the end of 2014, but Kaplan said the only real timetable is 2022, when Congress has said the whole process must be completed. Within that, he suggested, is the flexibility to get it right rather than get it done. Kaplan knows a bit about the complexity of the process. He is the former chief of the FCC's Wireless Bureau and an FCC point person during the first DTV transition.

As to that complexity, Kaplan pointed out that the FCC had hired Nobel laureates to handle the auction proportion, but that there were no Nobel Prize winners working on repacking. By contrast, he said, NAB had the expertise in that area and he expected the FCC to tap into that.

He pointed out that in the 2009 transition, only about 100 stations had to be repacked (from Ch. 52-69 to below 51). In this one, the number will max out at about 500 he says, though NAB is hoping the number is smaller. That number is assuming an estimated $3 million relocation costs per station and the FCC stopping when the money runs out.

NAB also wants the FCC to treat the $1.75 billion Congress set aside for those repacking/moving expenses as a budget, meaning when that money runs out, no more moving. As it is now, said Kaplan, NAB is concerned the FCC might use repacking as a way to free up spectrum even after that money ran out.

NAB's comments, due by end of day on Jan. 25, come just a day after a somewhat surprising joint letter filed by NAB and wireless companies Verizon and AT&T teaming on a new band plan proposal.

While during the run-up to legislation establishing the auction, NAB and wireless companies squared off, the tone has changed to a circle of friendship. Smith and Kaplan's tone reflected the new spirit of cooperation between the two, one cultivated by Kaplan at the direction of Smith.

But while they will be sharing what was once primarily broadcaster spectrum after the auction, Kaplan pointed out that they did not want to be in each other's living rooms.

That was a reference to the joint proposal that included AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Intel. Kaplan said they had talked to Sprint and was not sure why they did not sign on, but also said he expected others in the coming days to support the plan, both in separate comments and explicitly endorsing it.

According to Kaplan, that proposal's key differences from the band plan the FCC proposed last September are that wireless would occupy their own block of spectrum starting on channel 51, then depending on how much spectrum was reclaimed, the end of that block would feature a guard band, then broadcasters would occupy the remainder. The FCC's plan has broadcasters sandwiched between wireless uplink and downlink spectrum. He also said that as it is currently set up, there could be broadcasters on channel 48 in one market, and wireless companies on Ch. 48 in another. "Sharing channels between wireless and high-powered broadcast doesn't really work from an engineering perspective."

For example, he said, if the FCC sticks with a variable-market clearing strategy and clears less in New York than, say, Philadelphia, then channel 48 stays WNBC in New York, and its wireless handsets and base stations in Philly. "They are going to really interfere with each other, and if you create the protections you need to make sure they don't, the wireless carrier can't really use it. They will be on the other end of it, then you will have a problem in Baltimore. Their plan of variability in our view just doesn't work from an engineering perspective."

Smith said the new joint proposal could "shine a light on the way forward to a successful auction."

While channel-sharing would obviously impact the stations accommodating those giving up spectrum but wanting to remain in business, but Kaplan has said he doesn't see sharing working out and echoed that sentiment in explaining why the comments were mum on the subject.